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Spem in Alium for 1000 voices: Singing in 'The People's Chorus', Bridgewater Hall, Manchester  10.06 2006 (RGH)



A personal account of the grandest-ever attempt to perform Tallis' gargantuan motet, written by participant Richard Hallas. Thanks are due to Lucy Holland of Iambic Productions for supplying useful background information and statistics.



The hottest, sunniest day of the year to date wasn't the ideal occasion to gather hundreds of singers at a single venue to rehearse and perform Thomas Tallis' 40 part Spem in Alium  in seven hours: these were the conditions though for Iambic Productions' recording for BBC Four, in Manchester on June 10th.

Assembling 'The People's Chorus' involved amassing the best part of a thousand singers from around the country, most of whom had never sung together before,  and  helping them to learn Tallis' magnum opus quickly before attempting a performance of recordable standard by late afternoon. Managing all this  with the minimum of fuss and working with singers, of whom the majority had never sung the piece before, says a lot  for the skill and dedication of everyone taking part.

Background

The project was the brainchild of Iambic Productions' Producer, Chris Hunt, and was commissioned by David Jackson, Head of Music at BBC Wales. The original idea was to gather a thousand singers for the performance,  theoretically 125 people per choir, or 25 per part. The chorus master in charge of the project was David Lawrence, with Darius Battiwalla accompanying on the organ.

Spem in Alium is written for eight choirs of five parts each (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass), and clearly such an ambitious piece can only be performed on relatively rare occasions by sufficiently large groups. Chris Hunt felt rightly enough, that most singers would jump at the opportunity to take part in a performance; a view  reinforced by the fact that Spem in Alium is apparently Classic FM's most-requested choral piece.

Chris's opinion was accurate in my case, because I have been hankering after an opportunity to sing the piece for many years. My first contact with it was on finding a  copy of the score in a music shop in Manchester, appropriately enough. As a young teenager  barely able to lift the score, seeing it left me with a strong desire to take part in a performance. Previously, as a cathedral chorister (at Wakefield) I had sung much Renaissance polyphony already, and was probably in a better position than most teenagers to appreciate the appeal of the piece. My  experiences were limited to around five parts at best however, and a piece with eight times that number of vocal lines struck me as a true spectacle. Later, after hearing  several different recordings, I came to the conclusion that the work   was truly one of the wonders of the musical world. Since  I never had the opportunity to hear, or take part in, an actual live performance, participating in one remained a personal ambition for the next twenty-odd years.

I noticed the call for participants in the People's Chorus while browsing the BBC's classical music site in April, and was more than a little interested. There was a short survey to fill in, requesting information about the applicant's voice part, musical background and singing experience. I was particularly excited because the event would be very convenient for me: I live in Huddersfield, Manchester is only forty minutes away by train, and the Bridgewater Hall is located just outside Manchester Oxford Road station. Iambic Productions had publicised the event as widely as it could to potentially interested parties, and, some weeks later, I saw a separate notice about it at a rehearsal of the Huddersfield Choral Society, of which I am a member. By then though I had already applied and awaited a response eagerly.

Iambic received something over 900 applications, so the initial target of 1000 wasn't quite reached. The vast majority of applicants were accepted, the rejections being primarily the handful who claimed neither to have any singing experience nor to be able to read music! In the end, about 850 singers were registered as taking part, ranging from 7 and 9 year-old choristers from Bath Abbey to experienced choral singers who had been singing for many years.

A number of applicants dropped out as the event approached, and were hard to replace because the number of new applications dwindled after the initial rush. Most disappointingly of all, however, was the fact that around 100 singers simply failed to turn up on the day and the final tally was around the 650 mark; only two thirds of the original target, perhaps, but an impressive number of massed singers nevertheless.

Preparations

I received notification of my acceptance in mid-May, which was followed a week later with the news that I had been assigned to Choir Seven. Accompanying this information were details about what was required of me, and what would be happening on the day.

Rehearsing forty voice parts divided into eight separate choirs was clearly no small undertaking, and it turned out that two separate conductors, accompanists and venues were required to achieve it. Choirs 1, 2, 5 and 6 would meet and register at the Bridgewater Hall and rehearse in pairs, an hour apart, whilst choirs 3, 4, 7 and 8 would meet and rehearse in the Palace Hotel, Oxford Street, and join the rest of the group in the Bridgewater Hall in the afternoon.

All participants were required to sign a release form to allow Iambic Productions to film them, and everyone was requested to wear dark, smart casual clothing. All singers were also encouraged to bring a folder to house the score, and to decorate it as extrovertly as possible! Predictably enough, this resulted in a number of tackily tinselled affairs making an appearance on the day but I decided, perhaps boringly, just to become a walking advert for a choir that I've been in for many years: the Huddersfield Singers (of which I am also the Webmaster). I took along my tasteful maroon Huddersfield Singers sweatshirt (with an emphasis on sweat, given the weather on the day) and a music folder with matching logo.

A single-choir voice part was posted to every singer, containing just the five parts of the singer's own choir. Aside from the hindrance of a lack of cues, and the many bars of rest, this was clearly the best approach, as it produced a score of a manageable size and minimised the number of page-turns necessary. A final email from conductor David Lawrence explained various details about the piece, gave a pronunciation guide and, most importantly, explained the approach that he would take in terms of keeping all the many parts together. Basically, thirteen key points in the piece had been identified in the piece, which would act as positional signposts. At these points, David Lawrence would conduct a double, two-handed down-beat to allow all singers to confirm that they were in the right place, even if the signpost occurred in the middle of a multi-rest. And as preparation, these signposts needed pencilling into the score.

A strong recommendation in the preparatory instruction was that singers should obtain a recording of Spem in Alium and learn their parts in advance. A deal had been arranged with Signum Records to allow participants to buy a copy of the newly-released King's Singers recording for just £4. In my case, having bought the same CD at full price just days before applying to participate this was a source of mild frustration, but at least it had cost only £5 to start with! This King's Singers recording is an amazing achievement, using multi-tracking to allow just six male voices to sing all forty parts, and in which the male altos have to sing extremely high soprano parts (though the pitch has been lowered by a tone). The results are remarkably good, and the CD is undoubtedly the cleanest, purest and most technically perfect recording of Spem in Alium ever to have been made. I found however, that the disc wasn't a terribly useful aid for learning one voice part - because of the limited number of distinct voices singing all the parts. I found it surprisingly difficult to distinguish my choir 7 part from all the others when listening to this recording. Luckily I'm a good sight-reader though, so I simply learnt it on the day. Web links had also been given to MIDI recordings of the individual voice parts, but I didn't bother with these personally.

Morning warm-up

Warm - up was certainly the word. As I said at the outset, the event was blessed with good weather: almost too good, in fact, as the heat created significant discomfort for anyone not rehearsing in the air-conditioned Bridgewater Hall.

Palace Hotel, Oxford Street, Manchester

The Palace Hotel, Oxford Street, Manchester


As a member of choir 7,at 10 am I registered in the Palace Hotel where choirs 3 and 4 were required an hour earlier. After finding the venue without difficulty, I wandered into the main entrance, queued for a little while to hand over my release form, and was issued with a sticker to affix to my chest, which specified my name, choir number and seating position. Rather unexpectedly, identities had been organised alphabetically by forename rather than surname, which meant that many people queueing found themselves in the wrong place! While registrations were happening, camera crews wandered around interviewing a chosen few, such as an entire family group of parents and boys who were taking part.

Following registration, I was faced with rather a long wait, as it was only a little after 10 o'clock and my rehearsal wasn't due until 11am. I decided to find where the rehearsal was to take place and took a lift down to a basement to the appropriate room. It was at this point that I realised what kind of a day I was in for, as the sound confronting me when the lift doors opened was amazing: choirs 3 and 4 were in combined rehearsal, and the sound was just terrific. Despite hearing them in relatively poor acoustics, they sounded absolutely wonderful even though they had only been singing together for a few minutes. Impressed and enthused by this promising sound, I waited for my own choir's rehearsal impatiently.

Choirs 7 and 8 waiting to rehearse in the Palace Hotel

Members of choirs 7 and 8 milling around in the Palace Hotel foyer prior to their rehearsal


Stephen Williams rehearsed the choirs in the Palace Hotel accompanied by Graham Eccles. Each pair of choirs (3 and 4, and 7 and 8, at the Palace Hotel) had an hour of combined rehearsal time and a similar arrangement happened for the four other choirs in the Bridgewater Hall where they rehearsed with main-man David Lawrence and Darius Battiwalla. The hour-long sessions had to cover learning the entire piece, and proceeded, somewhat unexpectedly, backwards: the final section of the piece was the first thing to be rehearsed, perhaps because it's the most difficult, with quite complex syncopations, and would potentially require the most learning time. In the event, although there were some slightly tricky moments, the rehearsal went very smoothly and there was just a decent amount of time to get through everything, despite the fact that a fair amount of time was expended on warm-up exercises at the start.

Stephen Williams with Spem in Alium scores

Assistant chorusmaster Stephen Williams with a couple of Spem in Alium scores


Having gone along with the naive assumption that there would be twenty-five singers per part, the actual numbers fell a long way short of the hoped-for thousand, and Iambic Productions was stuck with whatever number of voices in each part had happened to apply. Individuals had already been assigned to parts, and could not be moved as that would have involved sending them a new score. Some singers had given back word or simply failed to turn up, which caused problems in the balance of parts: during the choir 7 and 8 rehearsal for example, it emerged that there were only two singers on choir 7's tenor line. The two embattled tenors performed valiantly and carried their line with aplomb, but even so, their part was unavoidably underbalanced.

The main point impressed on the singers by Stephen Williams was the huge importance of remaining conscious of a steady rhythm  - which proved to be invaluable advice because of necessarily long passages of multiple rest-bars. These occur in all choirs, but afflict those choirs with higher numbers the most. To be honest, the shortage of music to sing was my own worst disappointment on the day; choir 7 had less material than some of the higher-numbered choirs, and started the piece with 27 bars of rest. Although my voice was rather tired at the end of the day, I'd still have appreciated more to do.

Afternoon rehearsal

After a sandwich break at lunchtime, Palace Hotel choir members made their ways to the Bridgewater Hall for the afternoon rehearsals. This was a pleasure because it was the one air-conditioned location for the entire day and our first opportunity to cool off. I felt envious of people able to rehearse there in the morning.

The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester


Singing in the Bridgewater Hall turned out to be a back-to-front affair because the choirs were arranged around the auditorium where the audience would normally sit, positioned at different heights over three floors, which created an interesting three-dimensional body of sound. The stage was left bare except for the conductor, David Lawrence, the organist, Darius Battiwalla, and a camera on a long boom which peered around throughout the event.

Because Choirs 1 to 4 had an hour-long rehearsal at 12:30, followed by a second hour's rehearsal for choirs 5 to 8, the upshot was a fair amount of waiting for everyone not singing. I found this a little tedious, particularly because I didn't know anyone else who was there (though I did end up in enjoyable conversations with friendly strangers from time to time). I was surprised not to meet anyone from other choirs with which I've been involved. Though I have been a member of Wakefield Cathedral choir in the past, and am currently in both the Huddersfield Singers and the Huddersfield Choral Society (the latter being a nearly 200-strong entity) the only person I recognised was organist Darius Battiwalla, who accompanies the Choral. Perhaps I missed a few; but it did strike me that, if these choirs' members had all attended this event en masse, they could have accounted for nearly a quarter of the sought after thousand singers!

Choirs 7 and 8 waiting to rehearse in the Bridgewater Hall

Members of choirs 7 and 8 waiting to rehearse at Bridgewater Hall


Perhaps now is the time to admit that I am a counter-tenor. In fact, I suspect that I may have been the only one there; certainly there weren't any others in choirs 7 and 8, and I didn't hear any elsewhere either. I ended up sitting with the ladies, talking with a contralto from the London Oriana Choir who had travelled up the previous evening. Though she had come on a fast train, she expected the return journey to take four hours, and, worse still, had lost three hours' sleep thanks to a fire at the Palace Hotel! Some rubbish bins apparently had caught fire outside the hotel at 3am and filled many rooms with acrid smoke, so that occupants had been evacuated until 6am. This must have made an uncomfortably long and tiring day, given the prospect of a four-hour return train journey. My sympathies to all who were so afflicted!

The big moment came at 3pm when all eight choirs joined together for a full, combined rehearsal. The choirs were arranged anticlockwise in a circle, with choirs 1 to 4 in the area at ground level and choirs 5 and 8 in the second circle flanking choirs 6 and 7 in the first circle. Because of the many absentees, people were moved from into contiguous blocks.



A view of the rehearsal from the midst of choir 7

A view of the full-choir rehearsal in the Bridgewater Hall from the midst of choir 7; David Lawrence and Darius Battiwalla are on-stage, and the camera boom is visible at the right


The one potential problem that had particularly worried me about the performance by so many people was the potential for dragging and mistiming. Over the years, one of the most frustrating problems I have observed among larger choirs in particular is the potential for singers to fall behind the beat and leave the poor conductor behaving ever more energetically and giving the impression that he's stirring treacle. With up to a thousand singers present, I had been very much afraid that the whole enterprise would either just grind to a halt or collapse into a chaotic mass of incoherency. It was with a certain amount of amazement, therefore, that I found that this was not happening. Rather, right from the outset, timing proved not to be a problem. The massed choir was responsive and kept commendably to the beat.

I suspect that this was actually due to a combination of the difficulty of the piece and the basic competence of the majority of singers who applied. There's no question that even the most competent singers taking part would have had to count like billyo to be sure of not losing their place and coming in on time; it's simply not possible to sing Spem in Alium on auto-pilot (at least, not if you want to come in at the right place). So, everyone present would have been concentrating like mad to ensure that they kept with the beat and didn't lose their place. Also, it's pretty likely, of course, that most people who know Spem, and have a strong desire to sing in it, will have a good musical background and be basically competent, so there was a fair chance that the majority of those present were actually decent singers. And finally, David Lawrence's double-down-beats helped no end. Whilst everyone would have been counting carefully, the big beat acted as a useful confirmation that you were in the right place, and if you found yourself a bar or two out, it allowed you to reset yourself quickly and jump back to the correct position. All in all, then, what could have been a terrible problem turned out not to be an issue at all, and I'm sure that there was no-one more delighted about this than the conductor himself.

The full rehearsal comprised a few complete runs-through of the piece and a bit of top-and-tailing of individual tricky sections, but this was all that was necessary. I think that everyone was impressed by how well the combined rehearsal went, and the magnificent sound that was produced. There were really no major problems or hiccups; given the ambitious nature of the project, it went amazingly smoothly. To some extent, of course, considering the number of voice-parts going on at any one time, it didn't actually matter if people made mistakes (unless, maybe, you were a tenor in choir 7!); there were enough other singers to carry everything along, and so much combined sound that an occasional wrong note simply couldn't be heard. Regardless of the number of wrong notes any individual sang though, the overall effect was of a polished, accurate performance: everything stayed in time and in tune, despite the fact that it was actually quite difficult for the singers to hear the organ other than in the quietest sections.

One of the things that struck me most strongly during the rehearsals was what a truly amazing piece Spem in Alium actually is. Marvellous though CD recordings of it can sound, they never manage to reveal the extraordinary, three-dimensional wash of music produced by eight choirs arranged in a circle. You really have to be there to appreciate it; to take part in a performance is to feel the music swim around you and work its way around the cylinder of singers. Aside from that, the other amazing aspect is how technically well-written the piece is. Most musicians will appreciate the complexity of Renaissance polyphony, and the strictness of the rules by which it's composed; even a four-part motet of this period is a work of intricacy. One might imagine that a motet for ten times that number of voices would either be unwieldy or would have extremely boring individual parts which duplicated one another to a large extent. But Spem in Alium defies those suppositions: whilst many of the parts have large stretches of silence, and it's rare for all forty to be in play at once, every last part is rhythmically intricate and melodically interesting. The piece matches its monumental conception by its masterful construction, and is clearly a work of genius.

Spem in Alium scores

Stephen Williams' score of Spem in Alium, showing the forty-voice 'Respice' entry at bar 122 (left-hand page) and an obvious double-down-beat at bar 130 (right-hand page)


The final outcome

And so the time came at 5pm to put on the final, complete performance, which would be recorded for the TV broadcast. For this, an audience was brought in, composed purely of friends and relatives of the participants. Its arrival emphasised the back-to-front nature of the event, as the audience sat on the stage where the performers would normally be, and was sung at by the singers from the audience seats! The audience was quite a select bunch, as there was space for no more than 250 people on the stage at maximum, and I would estimate that only around 150 audience members were actually present.

Audience in place for the performance

The view from choir 7 of the Bridgewater Hall immediately prior to commencing the final performance, with the audience in place


Caution had been expressed from the outset that the final recording stage could well overrun, and that no fewer than two full takes would be required. A finishing time of 6pm had been set, but it was made quite clear that there was a distinct possibility that more than two full takes would very probably be required. As it turned out, though, the performance went so well that the minimum two takes were all that was needed, and the events concluded unexpectedly early, at 5:40pm.

I have to admit that, perversely enough, I was slightly disappointed that it had all gone so well! I was pleased that it had, of course, and I wouldn't have wanted to stay there all night recording take after take, but it all ended so quickly that I was left wishing for more. I had enjoyed singing this wonderful piece so much that I really would have enjoyed doing a third, final take.

Considering the fact that the vast majority of the participating singers had never set eyes on each other before, and most had not sung the piece previously either, going from an entirely unrehearsed piece to a polished, professional and truly resplendent-sounding performance in the space of a day was quite a remarkable achievement.

Conductor David Lawrence was clearly beside himself with joy over the success of the event, and appeared almost in danger of offering to buy everyone a drink, such was the effusiveness of his praise. I'm told that Chris Hunt, David Jackson and the Iambic Productions team members were all similarly pleased with the successful outcome. For myself, as a mere participant, I will say that I had a thoroughly enjoyable day and that the quality of the outcome exceeded my expectations. I just hope that the broadcast, when it arrives in due course, will live up to and reinforce my recollections; but I'm sure it will. Anyway, I personally found the day a hugely rewarding experience; not only did I fulfil my long-standing desire to participate in a performance of this marvellous piece, but I took part in surely the grandest-ever attempt.

On the small screen

There is as yet no word as to when the programme will be broadcast. It was commissioned as part of a Choral Season for BBC Four which is due to be aired later in the year, but beyond that there are no firm schedule details, and in any case only digital viewers see the broadcast when it first goes out. I am delighted to say, however, that Iambic Productions has confirmed that there will also be a DVD release, so the project will have a more substantial life than as a single one-off broadcast. The DVD will be distributed by DCD Media (Iambic's parent group) at some time after the BBC Four broadcast has taken place. Iambic Productions intends to inform participants of the transmission and DVD release dates once they are known.



Richard Hallas

 


 



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